Ware you should be this summer – in The Great Bed

Yesterday I was pleased and proud to have been asked to open the new exhibition at Ware Museum, Hertfordshire. They’ve got back their Great Bed on loan, for a year, from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Make sure you don’t miss seeing it in its home town! It was a glorious day, Ware’s church-bells were ringing, there was a specially-composed fanfare played, and about 100 people, many in Tudor costume, toasted the trustees and volunteers of Ware Museum in mead to recognise their great achievement in organising all this.

They were also unbelievably kind in presenting me with something they thought I’d like – and I did – a specially customised ‘Great Bed of Ware’ chamberpot.  (Currently sharing house room at mine with a warming pan used the other day in a film about the ‘Warming Pan Incident’ which led to the so-called ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688.)

Read all about this amazing project in Mark Bell’s article for The Guardian

Shakespeare used it as a byword for huge size and 26 butchers and their wives allegedly spent the night in it for a bet in 1689. Now the enormous Tudor bed that has been a centrepiece of the Victoria and Albert Museum for more than 80 years has a new temporary home.

The piece of furniture in question is the Great Bed of Ware, which has left South Kensington to take pride of place in the tiny museum of its Hertfordshire home town for a year.

Moving it was a huge logistical challenge from which emerged a surprise: hitherto unknown graffiti from 18th- and 19th-century admirers wanting to leave their mark on the bed.

Kate Hay, a curator in the V&A‘s furniture department, said the discovery of the graffiti – more than 20 scrawled names and initials – came about because of the laborious process of dismantling and packing up the three-metre-wide, 641kg (almost 101st) bed, which took around six days, followed by nine days getting it to a newly constructed extension at Ware Museum.

Just getting it out of the V&A was problematic, requiring 10 strapping carriers and an unconventional exit route, avoiding narrow doors and corridors.

Martin Roth, the V&A’s director, said the bed was “one of the V&A’s most loved exhibits and has never been off display since it was acquired in 1931”.

He added: “To remove the bed from the British galleries, transport it and reinstall it in another location is unprecedented, requiring much skill and dedication. We hope that the people of Ware will enjoy visiting this historic bed and that it will bring their local history alive.”

The bed was made in the 1590s, probably by German craftsmen in Southwark and presumably for an inn owner in Ware – an hour’s ride from London and packed with places to stay – who wanted to make a name for himself.

Its existence was first recorded in 1596 by a travelling German prince staying at the White Hart. The bed obviously achieved fame because five years later Shakespeare has Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night describe a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware”. It was referenced in Ben Jonson’s 1609 play The Silent Woman and in George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer, in which a bed is “bigger by half than the Great Bed of Ware”.

For most of its life the bed has been an attraction rather than a sleeping place – a repeat of the 26 butchers’ exploits is not something that would be countenanced these days, the V&A stresses.

The bed was passed around several Ware inns before it moved a pleasure garden in nearby Hoddesdon towards the end of the 19th century, becoming a bank holiday attraction during the boom in rail travel.

The V&A did consider buying the bed in 1860, but its hand was finally forced in 1931 when it looked as though it was heading to an American buyer at auction. The V&A stepped in to buy it for £4,000, which proved good value – the bed has always been high on the list of the museum’s most popular objects.

Hay said: “It’s such a memorable sight to see a bed this size. It is something that people who don’t know an awful lot about the museum have heard of.”

The Ware display will be officially opened on Saturday by Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. An award of £229,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped the Ware Museum Trust put the bed on display.

“We’re just so proud that we’ve all managed to do it,” said Janet Watson, a trustee of the museum for 25 years. “To co-operate with the V&A on such a big project is absolutely amazing. We’re still pinching ourselves – we can’t believe it’s here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *